Friday, 9 November 2007

Day 18: Karuizawa - Isobe Onsen

Distance covered: 21.8km
Weather: Fine

It wasn't quite the minus 4 degrees that Erik predicted, but at 4 degrees it was certainly nice not to have to go outside for breakfast.

We left our hotel at around 7am and rejoined the Nakasendo before passing through old Karuizawa, which is quite picturesque and laid back compared to the new town which later sprang up around the railway station. We then began the climb up to Usui Toge, the last of the passes on route to the Kanto plain and Tokyo.

Our intention was to follow the advice of Mr Kishimoto and trace the original Nakasendo route to the top of the pass rather then the more modern walking track, but although we soon found it with the help of one of Mr Kishimoto's route markers and were able to follow it for a few hundred metres, we soon lost the trail and had to rejoin the road above to continue the climb. We found the old route again for the last hundred metres or so, then continued on up to the lookout area for a wonderful view of the mountains on the Gunma prefecture side of the Gunma/Nagano border.

After a breather, we started the long (7km) descent to the next post-town of Sakamoto. We soon left the road and didn't see it again till we reached the bottom. The descent took us from an altitude of 1200m at the top of the pass down to 400m at Sakamoto (Karuizawa, our starting point for the day, is at an altitude of 950m). We passed a few day hikers going up to the shrine at the top of the pass, one of whom stopped for a while to talk to use. It was easy going most of the way, although the last stretch was quite rocky and steep.

Once at the bottom we started looking for a lunch spot, and found a nice restaurant inside a resort complex just off the main road. I had an eggplant and mushroom spaghetti, which was almost as delicious as the spaghetti I had at Sakudaira. The coffee was good too. We then set off again, following the valley into which we'd descended to the post-town of Matsuida. This stretch was quite beautiful in parts, with glorious views of the valley below and the craggy mountains on the far side of the river.

We arrived in Matsuida at around 3pm. We looked around for a coffee shop but couldn't find one, so I resorted to buying a coffee in a supermarket and drinking it in the car park. We then continued on to our final destination of the day, the hot-spring resort town of Isobe Onsen. Getting to Isobe Onsen required leaving the Nakesendo and descending into the river valley below. We had to ask for directions a couple of times, but we eventually arrived at our ryokan, Miharashikan, just as the sun was setting.

Our room was newly renovated and nicely decorated. We had a soak in the ryokan's hot-spring bath before heading down for dinner at 6.30pm. We shared the dining room with a couple of older Japanese guys who used to be schoolmates at university and who now work for different companies. One was a yachtie and was keen on visiting New Zealand. We had a long talk with them before eventually retiring at around 8pm.

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